Generally, the term “shoplifting” describes an act of theft committed by someone who steals merchandise from a place of business. Shoplifting may also be referred to as “retail theft,” or the “concealment of merchandise,” depending on which state is defining the crime. Shoplifting is an act of larceny, which is the act of taking someone else’s property without permission, and with no intention of ever giving it back. To explore this concept, consider the following shoplifting definition.

Definition of Shoplifting


  1. The act of stealing merchandise from a business.
  2. The act of stealing displayed merchandise from a store or shop.


1670-1680    British English “shoplifter” <from the now obsolete shoplift.

What is Shoplifting

Shoplifting is the act of stealing merchandise from a place of business. Some states see the concealment of merchandise to be an act of shoplifting, meaning that the offender does not even have to leave the store in order to be charged with the crime. The shoplifting laws of some states require the individual have the intent to take the item, though they generally consider the act of concealing the item to show intent.

Shoplifting Laws

Shoplifting laws not only make it illegal to steal products from a place of business, but they also make it illegal for a person to intentionally avoid paying the full price of an item. Examples of shoplifting with regard to price manipulation include switching price tags with those of lower-priced items, altering a price tag in some way (like writing a different price in), removing (or trying to take off) an item’s theft prevention device, or placing one item into the package of a different, lower-priced item.

Another example of shoplifting is taking an item off of a store’s shelf and bringing it to customer service in order to “return” it in exchange for store credit, which can then can be used to purchase actual goods. Shoplifting laws vary, based on the value of the goods involved in the crime.

Common Misbeliefs of Shoplifters

Interestingly, there are several common misbeliefs of shoplifters, which they only come to understand after being caught and charged with the crime. A few of these common misbeliefs of shoplifters include:

  • If you get caught, you can just pay for the items you took and you’ll get off scot-free.
  • You can’t be arrested unless you actually leave the store with the items you stole.
  • If you buy something while you’re stealing something else, then you can’t be a shoplifter.
  • You can’t be charged with a crime for just acting as a lookout while your friend does the shoplifting.
  • Shoplifting is justified when stores charge too much for an item, or if the salespeople are mean to you.
  • Shoplifting is a minor crime, and therefore you can’t go to jail for it.
  • Shoplifting something small hurts no one at all.

It is important that youths be properly educated on shoplifting and its consequences, debunking these common misbeliefs of shoplifters once and for all. Many offenders might never have ended up in the system in the first place, had they known that, what they thought was true about shoplifting, wasn’t true at all.

Shoplifting Charges

Shoplifting laws, which vary by state, dictate that shoplifting charges can range from an infraction, to a felony. Some states charge anyone accused of shoplifting with at least a misdemeanor. Examples of shoplifting incidents that result in more severe charges are those involving firearms or explosives. In addition to the type of item that is involved, the value of the item is also a factor. For instance, if the value of the merchandise falls below a certain dollar amount, then the punishment may be less severe. The law also takes into account multiple or repeated offenses.

An example of shoplifting charges that depend on the value of the item include those determined by the state of Massachusetts. Anyone who is charged with shoplifting as a first offense, and wherein the merchandise is valued at less than $100, will only be fined up to a maximum of $250. It is specifically noted in the statute that offenders whose crimes fall under these two conditions will not face jail time.

In addition to criminal charges, shoplifting charges have civil consequences. This is because anyone who commits an act of shoplifting is also responsible for any monetary or other damages the owner of the store or the merchandise may suffer as a result of the theft, or of the attempted theft. If the offender is a minor, his or her parents may be held responsible to pay those damages, no matter the state in which they live. However, some states actually require proof that the parents either knew, or should have known, that their child was interested in shoplifting.

Civil consequences of shoplifting charges may include the payment of:

  • Any financial losses the store owner suffered as a result of the theft.
  • The full retail value of the merchandise that was stolen, if the item is either not returned, or not returned in saleable condition.
  • Attorney fees and court costs incurred by the store or merchandise owner as a result of having to go to court over the incident.
  • An additional civil penalty, which is calculated based on the value of the merchandise that was stolen. An example of such a penalty is an order to pay the owner an amount equal to two or three times the value of the merchandise that was stolen, or a minimum amount required by law (whichever is larger).

For example:

Korey has been shoplifting for several years, working his way up in size and value of the items he takes. He was recently caught pocketing a couple of watches, valued at $250 each. Kory, when facing theft charges, takes a plea bargain in which he pled guilty, in exchange for a $500 fine, and two years’ probation.

The shop owner files a civil lawsuit against Korey, seeking damages for the items stolen, which were not returned, as well as damages to the display case from which Korey wrenched the watches. She also asks for punitive damages that amount to twice what the owner is out.

In this example of shoplifting consequences, Korey may be ordered to pay the shop owner $250 for each watch, $180 for the damaged display case, for a total of $680. In addition, the shop owner may ask for perhaps twice the total in punitive damages, which amounts to $1,360. So the total amount the court may award the shop owner in this civil lawsuit is over $2,000.

Shoplifting Statistics

Shoplifting statistics measured in mid-July of 2016, show some pretty surprising numbers. For instance, at present, there are currently 27 million people who shoplift in the United States; of those 27 million, only 10 million have actually been caught within the last five years. This is because the odds of actually getting caught shoplifting are only 1 in 48 incidents. Twenty-five percent of those shoplifters are children and teens, and 55 percent of them are older individuals who say they began shoplifting when they were teenagers. However, most shoplifters stop stealing by the time they are 24 years old.

Shoplifting statistics also indicate that:

  • $13 billion in merchandise is stolen from retailers every year
  • 45 percent of those shoplifters who were actually caught said that, despite being caught, it is still hard from them to give it up.
  • 3 percent of shoplifters actually consider themselves to be “professionals” at the practice
  • The odds of being turned over to the police after being caught shoplifting are 1 in 2.
  • Shoplifting statistics also indicate that retailers’ security systems aren’t as secure as retailers may think, with 70 percent of stores involved in shoplifting incidents having a CCTV (closed-circuit television) that is visible to patrons. Interestingly, only 46 percent of stores that were involved in shoplifting accidents hid their CCTVs, so the more visible the CCTV is, the more likely it seems that a store will be targeted.

Shoplifting and Mental Health Statistics

Quite a few individuals addicted to drugs turn to shoplifting as a way to support their drug habits, and some come to be addicted to the excitement and suspense of shoplifting itself. However, some people may see shoplifters as people who are trying to game the system, or youths who are looking to get into trouble. The truth is, shoplifting is a psychological issue.

One of the biggest motivators driving shoplifters is depression, which is why many shoplifting cases actually occur on offenders’ birthdays or during the holidays. Kleptomania is an impulse disorder, and it is the strongest drive to shoplifting that an offender can experience.

Signs of kleptomania include:

  • The offender feels pleased or relieved after committing the crime.
  • The offender feels an increase in tension right before committing the crime.
  • The offender repeatedly fails to resist the impulse to steal items that he does not need, nor can the items be resold for a significant amount of money.
  • The offender does not steal out of anger or vengeance, nor is he motivated by a delusion or hallucination.

Those who believe they may be suffering from kleptomania are encouraged to seek counseling before participating in a crime that could potentially ruin their lives by landing them in jail.

Shoplifting Example Involving Life in Prison

It’s not every day that shoplifting will earn someone a life sentence in prison, which is why it made the news when that exact scenario happened to Cecelia Cathleen Rodriguez in 2009. Rodriguez was sentenced to life prison after she pled guilty to grand larceny. Rodriguez was charged with stealing two purses from the department store Dillard’s, which were valued at $275 and $380.

Of course, this was not Rodriguez’s first offense – far from it. Oklahoma County District Court Judge Ray C. Elliott handed down the seemingly harsh sentence upon learning that Rodriguez was a heroin addict, and that she had been reprimanded nearly 30 times for crimes relating to theft. Her shoplifting record stretched all the way back to 1971. Judge Elliott also revoked Rodriguez’ probation on a larceny case from 2000, which added an additional 17 years to her life sentence.

Rodriguez was initially offered a plea deal of 17 years, but the offer was not accepted, and so she entered her plea in court, not knowing what the sentencing outcome would be. Her attorneys appealed the harsh sentence, arguing that the offer was never properly communicated to Rodriguez by her attorney at the time.

The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which initially declined to review her case. A couple of weeks later, however, after the Court vacated a man’s sentence in a similar case of inadequate representation, the Supreme Court vacated Rodriguez’ life sentence. The case was sent back to the Appellate Court to review the issue of whether the woman was adequately advised during the plea bargain process.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Blind Plea – A guilty plea that does not have a specific sentence attached to it.
  • Felony – A more serious crime than a misdemeanor which is usually punishable by imprisonment for over one year, or even by death in some cases.
  • Infraction – A violation of a law or a set of rules.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.